All About My Mother

Rembrandt Dazzling White

Tooth Bleaching Value Kit

There is nothing like an Almodovar film. Triumphs of excess, they are nothing if not too much: too much color (reds so vibrant they pulsate), too much plot (if it wasn’t for the transvestites, his convoluted films could be telenovelas – over-the-top Spanish-language soaps), too much florid emotion. His comic melodramas are so extreme they border on the ridiculous. When they fail, their outrageousness feels forced and campy. But when they succeed – as in his magnificent new All About My Mother – they take the classic Hollywood melodrama to completely unexpected realms.

To describe the plot of All About My Mother in any detail would do the film a disservice: the story depends on surprises for its impact. Recalling the film afterwards, these moments seem less like shocks for the sake of effect than carefully wrought epiphanies that jolt us into understanding the importance of what we’ve been witnessing. In any event, what happens is always less important in Almodovar than the manner in which things happen, the way that a stray gesture or an unexpectedly funny line reading can twist the meaning of an event into focus.

The film concerns Manuela (Cecilia Roth, in a stunningly transparent performance), a nurse who comes to terms with both enormous grief and the lies she’s built her life upon. She’s helped by Huma Roja (Marisas Paredes), an aging stage star currently playing Blanche DuBois; La Agrado (Anotonia San Juan), a transvestite hooker; and Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a nun. No one is quite what they seem, and once you think you know what they are, they change yet again. Their stories, no matter how outrageous, are treated with compassion and respect: Almodovar never trivializes their pain.

As delightful as his early films were, there was always something a little insubstantial about Almodovar. The near-hysteria and sheer speed of his films kept them from going much deeper than their extravagant, gorgeous surfaces. His borrowing from older Hollywood films – the way he uses snatches of Nicholas Ray’s baroque Western Johnny Guitar to flesh out Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, for instance – suggested an inability to create such moments on his own.

All About My Mother marks an enormous leap forward for Almodovar. The exuberant style is still there, but the story unfolds a bit less recklessly, with every detail falling into place with an unforced ease. It’s a film about fluidity, the way that our intimacies change over time, with characters taking on new roles and shifting in significance from moment to moment. The casual storytelling suits the theme: events seem to pile into one another haphazardly, with a tossed-off nonchalance about their comparative importance. It’s only near the end that we realize how deliberately structured the film really is: the most seemingly inconsequential moments are revealed as essential, and unstressed motifs (organ transplants, theatrical performance) take on powerful metaphoric weight.

It’s a style that hearkens back to Jean Renoir’s intricate, effortless interweaving of complex metaphor into his plots. When Almodovar’s end dedication (to, among others, actresses who’ve played actresses) rolls over a closing theater curtain, the allusion to Renoir’s The Golden Coach is unmistakable. It’s a sign of Almodovar’s newfound maturity that now he’s cribbing from Renoir and Garcia Lorca rather than Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. He took the gaudy flash of those directors as far as it could go, and now he’s investing their visual splendor with real poetry. He’s made the best film of his career, and the best film by anyone this year.

Gary Mairs